Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
Last week, I read a blog post called “Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)” by Peter Boullata, which I found through a link on RealClearReligion.com. In the post, the Rev. Boullata writes about his departure from parish ministry to enter another form of ministry. His reasons are various, but include well-known doomsday predictions regarding religious affiliation as well as a sense of exhaustion at the demands of ministry in the twenty-first century struggling church.
I read the piece with a great deal of sadness, and knowing. It occurred to me a few years ago that I will likely not be able to continue to “do what I do” in parish ministry until I am ready to retire, especially if I continue to live where I live. I suspect all United Church of Christ churches in this part of Maine will, in the not too distant future, be unable to afford much clergy time at all, unless they are willing to dig deep into endowments, raise funds in non-traditional ways, employ bi-vocational clergy, or a combination of such options.
It is certainly true that parish work has become exhausting. I particularly notice the exhaustion on Sundays when attendance is very low, especially when it’s not expected. It can be quite challenging for me to put a smile on my face and deliver a hearty and enthusiastic “Isn’t It Great to Follow Jesus” message. It’s important to encourage the faithful remnant, but it feels like we have “faithful remnant” Sundays way more often than when I first came to Old South ten years ago. And what’s happening at Old South is happening at other churches in the area. One local UCC church closed about seven years ago.
It’s not simply about numbers. After all, I’ve been preaching for several years now that we shouldn’t be so focused on the numbers, that churches with full parking lots are not necessarily “doing it right.” Our lives as Christians must be about more. Our lives must be about faithfulness to the Gospel, even if it turns out that there are not a lot of people where we live who want to join us. But, still, the struggle, the wondering, the disillusionment, and the disappointment (for me and the congregation) take a toll.
Every once in a while, my husband asks if I’ll be the one to turn the lights out at Old South. This is a question I never dreamed of thinking about when I was ordained twenty years ago. But, now I think about it. I wonder if I have it in me to venture to that place, and be the one to shepherd a congregation to its end—or at least to a sale or closure of its building (it would be nice to think that they could continue on, perhaps as a house church). I also wonder if I should figure out how to get out soon so I don’t have to be that person.
The studies and the polls show what we know and experience in Central Maine. It’s a hard place to be church, especially the liberal, progressive kind.
Yesterday, I read a summary of a talk given by Nadia Bolz-Weber, at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ. In her talk on the “postmodern church,” Bolz-Weber is reported to have said that “people shouldn’t take the Pew Research Center surveys showing fewer people are attending church to mean that they don’t care about Christianity anymore. That would be like saying because there are no phone booths, no one cares about talking on the phone anymore, or because there are no more Blockbuster stores, no one cares about being able to watch movies at home, she said.” (http://www.macucc.org/newsdetail/1346475)
Rev. Bolz-Weber obviously hasn’t been to Maine. From my vantage point in this part of the world, there are fewer people who care about Christianity (see my post from last week). I also look around and realize that many of my friends and acquaintances don’t participate in any organized religious activity. For the few that do, they are either Jewish or Unitarian. I have friends who were once practicing Christians, but they aren’t anymore, and I’ve noticed that they no longer talk to me about thinking that they ought to go back to church.
The tide continues to turn. It’s time to start thinking seriously about whether or not I have it in me to do what I never imagined doing, in shepherding a church to its end (or to a radical change in how it gathers) or whether it’s time to think about doing something else.
But, so far at least, there’s really nothing else I can imagine doing. Plus, I like Old South, its people and its community.
It’s not that I think it’s all about giving up. We must continue to evangelize, while we also think seriously about the realities that surround us.
If I do end up staying, I just hope that I’ll have it in me to finish the marathon—because that’s what it will be—and will include joyful moments as well as plenty of grueling moments of discomfort and pain. (Is there some kind of morphine we can take?) And, the exhaustion. Like Peter Boullata, that’s probably what I fear the most. It’s bad enough that I get more tired more easily now anyway, in all aspects of my life, but to live my life as a mind-numbingly exhausted clergyperson, that’s not good for anyone. So, let’s pray for the wisdom to know—before it’s too late.